<!--:es-->Nine charged in Calif. with $25,000 Katrina fraud<!--:-->

Nine charged in Calif. with $25,000 Katrina fraud

The nine all residents of Bakersfield, in central California.

LOS ANGELES – Nine people in California have been charged with defrauding the American Red Cross out of at least $25,000 in donations intended for victims of Hurricane Katrina, law authorities said.

The nine, all residents of Bakersfield, in central California, were either working as temporary staff at a Red Cross call center or were friends with someone employed there.

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott told journalists that $25,000 in fraudulent losses have been documented so far but that he expected the total to “grow dramatically.”

“It is beyond the pale that there are those who would seek to capitalize on the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the generosity of so many who donated relief funds,” said

Scott, in Fresno, California.

The nine are charged with participating in a wire fraud scheme and could face prison terms of up to 20 years each. They will appear in federal court in Fresno on Wednesday.

According to prosecutors, four of those accused were employed at an American Red Cross call center in Bakersfield that was set up to handle claims for assistance from the thousands of those made homeless by Katrina. The other five were friends or relatives of employees — all of them hired through a temporary staff agency.

The defendants, who range in age between 19 to 44, are accused of manipulating systems set up by the Red Cross to verify genuine Katrina claimants to obtain checks for themselves or their friends.

Scott said Red Cross officials became suspicious and referred the matter to the FBI. Some of those arrested were pictured on video cameras cashing or attempting to cash checks at Western Union offices in Bakersfield, according to affidavits in the case.

The American Red Cross said last week that it was committed to being “a good steward of the public’s generosity” but acknowledged that fraud was unfortunately part of life following major disasters. It said it knew of 261 cases of alleged fraud in connection with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and would continue to operate a zero-tolerance policy in all such cases.